Swinging The Lead

My wife is a mine of information. In the course of her therapeutic duties, she picks up any shiny little nuggets that she can reveal to me without betraying client confidentiality.

Last week, for example, she told me something very surprising. God knows, I’m not easily surprised about matters to do with the national health after all this time among the hypochondriac tribes of Gaul. But this floored me.

Did you know that, when he or she gives someone a sick note, a doctor can specify certain hours during which the patient can legitimately be out and about? In other words, I suppose, if Monsieur or Madame Ixx is spotted wandering up and down the aisles of their local Leclerc with a shopping trolley between the hours of, let’s say, 15.00 and 16.30, then it doesn’t necessarily mean that they are swinging the lead. (Or le swinging, as it may popularly become known.)

As an outsider observing the curious rituals of the master race, it doesn’t take long to deduce that the French are addicted to their doctors. Since doctors are generally in the pockets of Grand Pharma, it also doesn’t take long to figure out that there are plenty who prefer to sign off evident malingerers rather than hold up the queue or disturb the peace. But surely someone is either sick or isn’t sick. And if someone is sick, shouldn’t that person be in bed rather than abroad between certain hours?

For me, the discovery of this ‘qualified sicky’ exemplifies what is wrong with France. It’s the absurd consequence of a nanny state gone mad. The idea a) that a doctor, a servant and representative of The State, could specify on a piece of paper that Monsieur or Madame Ixx can only leave their sick bed between certain hours, and b) that Monsieur or Madame Ixx might actually sheepishly follow this prescription suggests that there is a deep-seated and genuine social malady requiring major surgery.![](upload://nTLqNP0fsEcbwBEodnnAfZQrPo1.jpg)

I wouldn’t want you to think that I’m adopting a holier-than-thou stance about sick notes just because I’m self-employed and therefore can never afford to be sick. It’s nothing to do with that, and I’m even prepared to accept that many sick notes are legitimate. But I do have personal experience of just how easy it is to work the system. I was once shamelessly guilty of throwing the knotted rope into the sea to determine its depth during my 15 years in Britain’s Civil Surface. In my defence, I have to say that I was only young at the time. Maybe it was because my precious weekend had been ruined by a nasty bout of gastro-enteritis, or maybe it was the dawning realisation that my one-man war on waste would not help my promotion chances, because the only way to rise to the top in the organisation was to show yourself adept at paper-pushing, obfuscation and passing of the buck so that it stopped neither on your desk nor, more crucially, the desks of the people above you.

Anyway, it seemed very unfair that I should feel fine again come Monday morning, so I determined: dash it all; I’m not having this! I put on two jumpers and squeezed myself into a tight jacket and ran all the way along the Upper Lewes Road and then down to Preston Circus and the surgery of my nice but rather inept doctor. He was a squat Asian gentleman with a tiny voice and gold-framed bi-focals, who had better remain anonymous because I am sure that he was doing his best in the face of belligerent malingerers and frequent inducements from the drug companies. He had this annoying habit of nodding mechanically whenever I attempted to answer his question, And how are you feeling today?, and then scribbling out a prescription before I’d finished.

On this particular day, I was early enough to be first or second in the queue. So, when I was called in to his inner sanctum, I was still sufficiently wheezing from my exertions and apparently running such a high temperature that it must have seemed like I was knock-knock-knocking on heaven’s door (if lead-swingers go to heaven). He wrote me a sick note for an entire week. I came out of that surgery like one of those people in annoying adverts that punch the air and go ye-e-e-sssssssss! That afternoon, I even chanced my luck by taking the bus up to the municipal golf course for a round of golf. Did I need a note to tell me that I could legitimately be abroad at that time? I did not.

So I know about sick notes. There will always be a few dodgy sick notes even in the most public-spirited of utopian societies. The trouble is that the qualified sicky suggests that it so endemic as to have become almost acceptable. Earlier this summer, for example, Debs and I were sharing an aperitif with the Parisian who works (fitfully) in a state hospital. He and his mate had spent most of July rendering the walls of the house he is renovating down below us. He was lamenting the fact that he and his family would be returning to the big city that weekend. Debs asked him if it was back to work on Monday? Without the slightest shame or sense of irony, he shrugged and suggested that he would see how he felt, because he had a long-term note for his sciatica.

What hope of reform is there? Each bright-faced and breezy new leader elected to the Palais de l’Élysée – often with a mandate for some kind of change – is presumably aware of the socio-economic implications of the qualified sicky. Yet, no sooner does he knuckle down to the task of doing something to change things than he is de-railed by plummeting ratings.

Just as the tiny oligarchy of American zillionaires will no doubt use their obscene wealth to stymie President Obama’s modest efforts to tinker with the tax system, so everyone with a vested interest in the qualified sicky will do their utmost to prevent any kind of useful reform. Custom and practice über alles. So what’s the point? Why bother, one is tempted to ask?

The longer I live in France, the more I come to understand the roots and the rationale of the Gallic shrug.

That's a great story, Jo. I do hope your son is gastrically stable now and trust that he will find a job better paid than the Poitiers deal. Jings, you might find better wages than that in Burkina Fasso.

"Malingerers belingers" or even bi-lingualers! he he. I love your discussion Mark, it brings to mind my beleagered son, who, tired and run down from working split shifts and living on apprentice salary , equal to 336euro a month, minus 120 for lodgement, got a bad stomach bug. There was no pavement untouched in Poitiers that week, by his gastric effluent, poor so an' so. He stuck to staying in because he was incapable of walking after 24 hours anyway, but he did need togo out to buy milk and medecine. But on the 4th and final day of his sicknote, he finally kept his dinner down and decided he was better. In impatient, bored, teenage haste, he went jogging at 8pm, ate more dinner and then onto the pub at 11.30, where, after one beer, he promptly returned to covering Poitiers in his stomach contents. I warned him. I knew he would need longer.

Thing was, his boss spotted him in the pub and definitely didn't understand, despite our attempts to explain. He was furious, and refused to allow him out of the kitchen sink or chopping salads to learn his trade for months afterwards. Needless to say, my son gave up and is now looking for any job that pays at least a minimum wage for being treated like a criminal at every turn.

If you know you are at risk you take appropriate precautions. I think as long as people are aware of their health status, you can judge accordingly. Problem is people dont always realise they are stressed.

I’ll tell all those viruses and germs to keep away fromme then Carol, as my immune system has always let me down.

Jane, my sister has a small domestic cleaning agency. She stills goes out to clean some clients who only want 'somebody in authority'. When she trains new cleaners, they have to get used to gloves, even too the extent of different ones for different tasks. Hands have to be washed and thoroughly dried, then the kind of gloves with powder inside used and hands cleaned at the end of a job. She got into that habit when she was supervisor of cleaning at a large London day centre for the elderly where cleaners and nurses all had similar procedures. It also keeps the clients happy believing that their lovely clean places are also healthy!!!!

Well now I am back in the UK believe me…I am not backwards in coming forwards with complaints! and personally, I have several French, Indian, Pakistani, Argentinian, Turkish, Greek friends as well as many from all parts of Africa and Australasia…all living here…we sit and complain about everything from dog poo on pavements here to backhanders to the council for building permission…I am not offended that they have a poke at the UK…its not as if I am personally responsible.

thanks carol. I never use gloves at home and hate wearing them at work - but do so to protect myself from illness. A fellow cleaning lady never wears them and always seems to be ill

Thank you, peeps who recognise that I'm only having a laff, for your spirited defence. Sorry if I upset you, though, Ernest. I'm probably guilty of self-employment bias, because I've grown accustomed to the self-employed being treated as 2nd class citizens in France. And maybe I shouldn't take so many digs at our hosts, but it's fun sometimes and it helps preserve your sanity (in the face of quintupling taxe fonciere) . If I lived in the UK, I'd probably take digs at the Brits. I think I need to get out of the house more and take more picnics. Or maybe go and see the doctor!

Off for my first mile long walk…speak later…

lovely ‘holiday’ not hospital…got blinkin hospitals on the brain!

Jane you could be right that your immune system is compromised by your unsocial hours. You will find lots of research showing shift workers who are made to work a mix of days and nights have higher sick leave because of their compromised immune system. Our bodies get stressed and then we get ill. You know the way you work every day, through terrible weather, illness in the office and stay healthy…and the moment you have time off or have a lovely hospital you are ill…same thing.

Health professionals will always suggest wearing gloves…and in the last unit I worked in cross infection was avoided by washing hands, putting on an apron, putting on gloves before attending to every patient. Hand washing is essential. I dont use gloves to do any housework, and as a nurse in the 70s, 80s etc…we never used gloves, so I would clean up vomit, poo and all other delights minus gloves, which were not commonly worn till the 80s onwards. Skin contact with germs, if you have any tiny scratches, there is a chance of infection. At home I dont use gloves to clean toilets etc. just make sure my hands are well washed after and use alcohol hand cleanser as well.

Like the shoulder Carol. I have only been unable to travel because of that at first, what has turned out to be a severe apnoea rather than epilepsy that caused it (take off thrust would have hurt shoulder, now could give me convulsions, such luck...) but I can pick up a phone, use a computer, Skype and so on, so actually from the day I left hospital like you no reason not to work. Had I had a job I would have had a sick note for yonks. I am not complaining, or lording it as was suggested of Mark, but ironically making a point without even intending it to be remotely serious.

before last November I hadn't been to the doctor for 9 years. I believe getting up at 4am has compromised my immune system. Also - (again - I'm genuinely interested) I hate wearing rubber gloves at work to clean loos and empty wate paper baskets - can I do without them?

True Catharine…the most common reasons for being at risk is an unhealthy lifestyle or a fragile immune system. Smokers and alcoholics are way more likely to catch everything…as is anyone with an underlying health problem already. Keep fit, eat your fruit and veggies, have a good diet, exercise…dont smoke or drink too much and you will avoid most of those nasties.

Jane…didnt for a minute think you were goading any more than I am. It really isnt a simple process. Look at flu germs…half the office gets it…half doesnt…yet all of you have been in contact with the germs. When you catch something…a virus for instance, there is a reason, and the reason is usually that you are not 100% and your system lets you down.

And....(IMHO) if you drink vast quantities of veggie juice, your immune system fights off most nasties

Mrs "I'm so smug because I didn't have a single cold last winter" Higginson!

The viruses live in the air, that is what I was saying…they are there all the time…same as the bacteria. One day you breath them in and your system deals with them…the next day, there is a chink in your system and your body doesnt fight the virus effectively and you are infected. Thats the point of your bronchitis; if you have 3 colleagues in an office, one comes in with a cold, one of you catches the cold, the other person doesnt…why? million reasons, the person that catches the cold may have recently had another infection or had surgery, or has recently got over a bereavement, these can all lower your ability to fight off germs. The other person could be at the peak of their fitness, had a milder form of the cold recently so has the antibodies to deal with them. Its not so simple as someone coming in work with a snotty cold infecting everyone…that isnt the way it works.

I'm not goading - I'm genuinely interested